The Myth of the Undeserving Poor Should End with the Pandemic
Policies offering critical aid to those in need have long been hindered by the damaging myths and stereotypes they buy into. Letting go of these ideas can open a new path to ending poverty, as shown by the success of recent federal cash relief.
As the pandemic brought on waves of joblessness, concentrated among Black and brown workers in low wage jobs, our nation’s overwhelmed state unemployment insurance (UI) systems made headlines for their convoluted application processes and late payments, and the frustration of accessing public assistance in America became a national story. But many of the 34 million Americans living in poverty had already learned this lesson.
Growing up in a low-income family in rural Alabama, my family and I learned this lesson, too. We also learned about the additional stress and anxiety associated with seeking help from the safety net. As a kid, it was difficult to understand why it felt like we had done something wrong when I knew my parents had always done everything they could to take care of us. It wasn’t until I learned about the ideas that shaped these programs that I understood why accessing them felt so much like punishment.
This lingering shame is a hallmark of U.S. anti-poverty policy, and reveals one of the core assumptions baked into many of its key programs: some people simply do not deserve to be helped. The myth of deservingness, that a person must prove they deserve to have what they need to live a life of basic security and dignity, has given rise to anti-poverty policies rife with inaccessibility and stigma. Driven by this idea, safety net programs have been bogged down with counterproductive and paternalistic policy design features intended to sort the deserving from the undeserving. While some anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) took emergency action to expand access to aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this progress will be short-lived if we allow this critical moment to pass without reevaluating the ideas which left us scrambling to respond in the first place.
A Long History of Welfare for the Few
Here is a key example of the prejudice I’m describing. Many programs attempt to root out “laziness,” or lack of willingness to work, by instituting work requirements which demand benefit applicants track down and submit detailed evidence of employment and earnings in order to receive benefits. This is in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those living in poverty who are able to work, do so. This suspicion towards the poor has existed and bled into anti-poverty programs since the New Deal, and continues today. The history of modern work requirements also reveals a throughline of racism, tracing back at least to the 1930s, when Aid to Dependent Children’s (ADC) work requirements singled out Black families and forced them into low-wage work on the basis of a false and racist belief.
We can see these ideas continue to influence policy today. An abundance of recent evidence shows work requirements do not help people find a well-paid, stable job, and may harm benefits recipients by causing them to lose their benefits. Yet, the federal government requires recipients of SNAP, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), and other live-sustaining benefits to provide evidence of work activities in order to continue receiving benefits.
Beyond work requirements, policymakers have devised a variety of other challenges that may stand between a struggling person and access to the benefits they need. A busy parent hoping to figure out what aid their family qualifies for and how to access it will also likely run into intimidating paperwork and arduous in-person appointments. These administrative burdens demand extra time, energy, attention, and resources, luxuries no parent in need can easily spare.
Some of these burdens reveal a darker history, and it is crucial that we understand that history if we are to understand the problems plaguing our safety net today. Historically, many of these regulations have been aimed at controlling mothers (and Black mothers in particular), perpetuating the belief that these mothers are somehow inferior to white, upper-class, married mothers and in need of correction. Long before Reagan’s “welfare queen” rhetoric cast poor Black mothers as villains, mothers’ pensions in the early nineteenth century excluded Black women in favor of upper-class white widows and married mothers, betraying a common belief in sexist and racist stereotypes.
This idea lives on today in the requirements set by some anti-poverty programs in efforts to police and punish benefits recipients’ morality. A certain class of these arbitrary rules, called behavioral requirements, refuse or reduce benefits for recipients based on moral judgements about their behavior. In eleven states, one such requirement, family cap policies, deny increased TANF benefits to mothers who give birth to a new infant while receiving benefits, a transparent effort to control womens’ reproductive choices.
It’s no wonder that the U.S. safety net, steeped in these racist, classist, and misogynistic ideas, has been shown to instill feelings of indignity in the vulnerable individuals and families relying on it to survive. In a study of Black women experiencing food insecurity, one woman described the degrading experience of complying with SNAP program requirements:
When I was reapplying for food stamps, I remembered how I was made to feel. Because of my working schedule I would have to take off for the day or try to get out early, which, of course, wasn’t good workwise. I just felt demeaned. Because, yes, I turned in my pay stubs regularly. But they would lose my paperwork! They’d make me go back to the office again and again.
Between the exhaustion of complying with burdensome requirements and the dehumanizing effects of navigating these systems, it’s no surprise that many are unable to secure and maintain this aid. In fact, an Urban Institute study revealed that 1 in 4 of those living beneath the poverty line do not receive any aid from six of the most common social safety net policies, including SNAP, TANF, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
A Chance to Rewrite How Our Policy Treats Poverty
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has created record food insecurity and surging unemployment. For the 37 percent of Americans who reported they would struggle to cover a $400 emergency expense even before the pandemic, this crisis only highlighted the economic precarity they face. For these households, one destabilizing event like a lost job or emergency medical expense can be enough to send them down a path they know all too well—the spiral into hardship.
The pandemic seemed poised to trigger this downward spiral for many, but thanks to bold action from the federal government, the bleed of economic devastation was stemmed. The direct transfer of generous cash aid to almost every household in the United States, in the form of stimulus checks, and the rollout of advance payments for the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) reduced poverty to historic lows nationwide. Researchers at Columbia projected nationwide poverty would hit a record low this year as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), with a poverty rate of 8.5 percent for 2021—a significant drop from 12.8 percent in 2018.
The impact of this aid shows the power of giving cash with no strings attached.
The impact of this aid shows the power of giving cash with no strings attached. The stimulus checks and advance CTC payments came with no work requirements or other onerous rules, and marked a shift from the minimum income requirement seen in other U.S. anti-poverty policies, like in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the pre-pandemic CTC structure. These minimum income requirements, or phase-ins, exclude the neediest by only providing aid to those who already have income, falling back on the tired trope of the entitled welfare recipient who must be incentivized to show some “personal responsibility” and seek out a living on their own. The Jain Family Institute estimates child poverty would have been 53 percent higher if the CTC had not dropped this requirement, and emphasized the importance of preserving this change.
The historic drop in poverty brought on by the ARPA came as the result of a policy choice—the choice to prioritize putting cash in nearly every Americans’ wallets in a moment of crisis over clinging to toxic ideas about the type of people who might be getting it. And the most important lesson we can learn from its success is that the existence of poverty in a wealthy nation like the United States is not only a crisis itself: it is a policy choice as well.
To preserve the ARPA’s progress, we must examine what the pandemic response teaches us about effectively fighting poverty and what it reveals about the ideas holding us back from eradicating poverty in the United States. Otherwise, if we let these lessons slip by, we can expect to see poverty rates rise again as pandemic aid dries up and households are left to rely on the threadbare and inequitable U.S. safety net.
We can replace the paradigm of deserving and undeserving with a move towards inclusive benefits that prioritize accessibility and dignity.
So what would it look like for anti-poverty policy makers to make the right choice and follow this example in strengthening our safety net? Weeding out false and often racist ideas about those who receive public assistance is an important first step. We can replace the paradigm of deserving and undeserving with a move towards inclusive benefits that prioritize accessibility and dignity. As a start, we can advocate for an end to work requirements and other paternalistic policies, as well as minimum income thresholds. Choosing real policy change over paternalism is our only hope to prevent a backslide into rising poverty.